I, along with the Vietnam INDEVOURS and some new friends, visited Ha Long Bay, one of the 7 new natural wonders of the world. It is a truly breathtaking place that everyone should visit at some point in their life if they have the chance.
Leaving early Saturday morning, we arrived in Ha Long Bay some three hours later. I was instantly blown away by the unspoiled natural landscape and its perfect blend of blue, green, and grey. Our boat slowly made its way across the bay, allowing me to take in every square inch of the beauty that lies within its hundreds of small islands.
I got to explore a limestone cave that I totally geeked out about (I used to study rocks and had a pretty sweet rock collection, so needless to say, it was amazing to see the rock formations up close!). We also got to go kayaking and swimming.
While floating in the bay, I watched the sun set over the pristine island seascape. At that moment life could not have been any more perfect. Everything was so peaceful. A pretty big change from the past month I have spent living in Hanoi.
It all felt so surreal. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning and venture out I still can’t believe I’m actually here! I am so thankful for the amazing opportunity that I have to be in Vietnam, and I want to spend more weekends like this exploring all that it has to offer.
In Hanoi, I am a visible minority. Walking around the city I get stared at intensely, I am pointed at, and I am the recipient of numerous comments or the topic of many street side discussions.
It’s hard to remain unnoticed here, especially as a foreign woman. I’ve watched foreign men walking maybe 10 feet in front of me be largely ignored by locals. As soon as I pass by though I get hounded by xe om drivers, or anyone with a motorbike really, asking me if I want a ride. Most days I don’t mind saying a simple no thank you to xe om drivers and I can mostly ignore the curious stares of street vendors and shop owners. I know that I’ve probably unintentionally stared at people here that interest me. But some days it just gets to me. Sometimes I honestly dread walking to wherever it is I need to go because I don’t want to deal with the unwanted attention.
Unlike minority groups in Canada or the United States though, my minority status in Vietnam does not significantly disadvantage me, in fact, in many ways it probably grants me privileges. Realizing this makes me feel awful for complaining about stares and comments, but even still it can’t erase my feelings of being out of place.
Sometimes sticking out does have its advantages. It can be a great conversation starter. I have had taxi drivers and security guards make small talk with me in a mix of Vietnamese and English. Children have passed by me excited to say hello, and share whatever other English words they know. Restaurant staff will take extra time to help me with my pronunciation so I can order more clearly the next time. Interactions like these make everything else seem insignificant.
Sometimes though, I still really wish I could blend in.
I moved into my house this past weekend and it’s fantastic! It’s located within a series of alleyways and really close to a beautiful temple. Not going to lie, riding on the back of a motorbike through alleys the first time I went to find the house didn’t seem promising. I was relieved to find a beautiful house and a network of alleyways that are home to a really nice community. Everything you need is within these alleyways. My landlady, who has really become more of a host family mom, took Christian and I to the morning market to buy some food. She showed us the best vendors to buy things from and haggled to get us the best prices.
I’m excited to bargain for myself and tell all the vendors that their prices are too expensive (đắt quá!) no matter what they are. It will be a fun way for me to practice my Vietnamese. That, and starting conversations with people at a bia hơi place! (bia hơi is a micro-brew type beer costing about 25 cents a glass that you can find on street corners all over Hanoi—with one conveniently located 2 minutes from my house!)
So far I love the overall energy of this city. While I might not appreciate the baby crying at midnight in the house only a foot away from mine, or the 5am wake up calls from loudspeakers saying who knows what, there is a sense of community here that is special. Everyone seems to slow down and take the time to connect with those they care about over a meal or a drink. It’s something I look forward to doing more of.
I have been in Hanoi for one week now and I think I am settling into my new life here considerably well. At first, I was honestly intimidated by the city. There are so many people around ALL the time and personal space doesn’t seem to exist. A combination of unrelenting heat and pollution/dust makes you feel icky during daytime walks around the city. And I have yet to find a quiet space in Hanoi. Days are filled with the sound of car horns, people yelling (which is really just talking, but VERY loudly), and other miscellaneous noises.
Yes, Hanoi is a chaotic place, but it is also a truly beautiful city. For every bad smell there is the delicious smell of food cooking on the side of the road. Every honking motorbike reminds you that you are not alone. I think it is all of these things that make Hanoi such a special place and that have allowed me to grow so fond of this city in such a short time.
Simple tasks have become much more complicated here. Calling a taxi. Trying to order exactly what you want from street vendors. Even crossing the street. These are all very easy and basic things for me to do in Canada, but in Vietnam add in the language barrier and millions of motorbikes and suddenly you’re left with a challenge.
Things have already gotten easier though! I can successfully order my staple foods: a sinh tố xoài (mango smoothie), bánh mì trứng (egg sandwich), mì xào chay (vegetarian noodles), and bánh phở/phở chay (vegetarian phở). Every time I go out to eat it’s an adventure. You never quite know what you are going to end up with but it makes the experience that much more fun. Communication is still a challenge of course, but people are friendly and patient with me as I struggle to learn and speak Vietnamese.
Crossing the street isn’t such a big deal anymore either! There are just as many motorbikes and the traffic is just as crazy as when I first arrived, but I think I have discovered the structure to the unstructured driving: as you make your way slowly across the street, motorbikes and cars will just part around you and then resume to their regular pattern. Or that’s the hope anyway.
On Friday, Vicky and I went to a ServiceOntario office to extend our OHIP coverage while we are away in Vietnam. This sadly meant that I finally had to say goodbye to my trusty old red and white health card after 20 years. Gone are the days of a health card without a picture or expiry date.
But, at least I can cross one thing off my to-do list! Now I just have to:
- extend my actual travel insurance
- get death and dismemberment insurance (I know, right)
- apply for my travel visa
- get my last japanese encephalitis vaccine
- get my G licence (my licence will expire while I’m in Vietnam, so the pressure is on!)
and probably 10 other things, all before I leave in 41 days.
Can you believe it? Only 41 more days!
While sitting around a campfire with my family on Canada Day, I had the opportunity to reflect upon everything that makes Canada such a wonderful country. Freedom, relative equality, the capability to meet basic needs, and of course, poutine. Then I started to think about Canada’s Indigenous peoples, and how they are largely faced with a different reality.
I have always had an interest in Indigenous rights and the struggles faced by Indigenous peoples. Last term I noticed that the University of Waterloo was offering a class called Native Peoples and Public Policy in Canada. I jumped at the opportunity to enroll in this class. The first class opened up with a smudging ceremony. I was hooked. In all of our classes we sat in a talking circle, so that there was no hierarchy. Everyone was equal. When we discussed concepts and ideas, we passed around a talking stick. The talking stick gave you the power to speak for as long, or as little as you would like, or not at all. For a shy person like myself, the talking stick really allowed me to open up and share my opinions in a space where I honestly felt no judgment.
Indigenous people in Canada experience higher rates of suicides than the Canadian average, higher rates of substance abuse, higher rates of unemployment, low rates of education, and little to no access in many cases to clean, running water or basic health care services. These experiences have manifested as a result of colonialism and oppressive government policies that forced assimilation. The Canadian government worked so hard to break down what in my mind is such a beautiful culture and way of life. The nature-centered view of society and spirituality. A cyclical view of time. A focus on building relationships.
I think there is a huge potential for incorporating Indigenous knowledge and ways of life into the field of international development. For too long, development has harmed where it set out to help, proving to be especially true in the context of Indigenous development. Development tried to “modernize” societies that were already functioning well (and in many ways, functioning better than current Western society). For me, development can only truly be accomplished if it arises from the grassroots and includes full participation from all affected parties. I think we can learn a lot from Indigenous teachings that focus on building relationships and earning respect. In my opinion, incorporating these tools will make sure that the appropriate steps to development are taken.
How do you feel about the incorporation of Indigenous teachings and ways of life into development? Would you like to see some of these methods incorporated into other aspects of your lives? Maybe in our mainstream education system which can often be exclusive?